26 December 2016

That man Sarinda Unamboowe


Today it is hard to utter the name Sarinda Unamboowe without also mentioning Nathan Sivagananathan.  They are twins of a kind, united in purpose, sacrifice, giving, spirit and heart.  These are the names associated with ‘The Trail’, an exercise of love, loving kindness, reconciliation, unification and a lot more besides; in other words much more than a long walk from the Northernmost point of the country all the way down to the Southern tip to raise money for a cancer hospital, a facility that twins an earlier effort to build a similar hospital in the North.  

Sarinda and Nathan would brush it off, the former with a dismissive guffaw and perhaps a self-effacing blunt joke and the latter more politely.  They’d both say the same thing, most likely: ‘it’s not about us and it’s not just us — it’s about thousands and thousands who came together and did something that was truly amazing.’  

They are right, of course, and yet in a land and indeed a world which unfortunately needs heroes, these two names are better known and not undeservedly either, one might add.  

All lives are epic.  Some are known, written about and read.  Some are lived, known to few or none, and end in anonymity.  Nathan has a story and one day it will be written.  Sarinda’s too.  This is not biography.  This is recollection and gathering, a piecing together if you will, less for the record than for a glimpse of conduct that should not surprise and lessons worth learning.

Sarinda at 14 or thereabouts


Let me begin with Sarinda the cricketer.  According to all accounts Rochana Jayawardena (who later went on to win a Test cap) produced a match-winning all-round performance at the 104th Battle of the Blues, scoring an unbeaten 145 and collecting a match-bag of 9 wickets.  He didn’t win it for Royal all by himself, however, and he would be the first to state this.  He came in when the more fancied Royal team had lost 4 wickets for a paltry 56.  

Seated (L to R): Malik Samarasinghe, Sarinda Unamboowe, Chulaka Amarasinghe (Capt), Sandesh Algama and Rochana Jayawardena
Malik Samarasinghe (11) helped Rochana stop the rot, putting together 55 for the 5th wicket.  Important.  Gihan Malalasekera was run out for a duck, but he sacrificed his wicket to ensure that the man better equipped to marshall the tail and get a decent score for the team remained in the middle. Important.  

Then came Sarinda.  The score was 112 for 6.  Sarinda, who together with Rochana had saved Royal against S Joseph’s a few weeks before, rose to the occasion once again.  The pair put together 90 runs for the 7th wicket.  Very important.  He was there when Rochana scored his fifty (just his second for the season) and when he reached 100.  His contribution was just 26.  

A team man.  Makes sense, looking back 32 years later and in the context of the things he’s done.  This I realized fully only a year later.  

It was a different team.  A much weaker team.  A team which would have lost the Royal-Thomian if not for the heroics of a young fresher called Chandana Jayakody.  The incident took place a few weeks before the Big Match.  

It was late evening.  The ground was empty, except for the squad going through late-evening exercises.  They were jogging around the ground.  They were in full view of the Prefects’ Room.  The prefects, around that time, were finalizing the list of Stewards for the match.  They happened to see the cricketers and one of them roared a hearty ‘Aaaar’ (‘R’ as in ‘Royal’ and as in the first of the cheer, ‘R-O-Y-A-L Royal’).  Following the ‘Y’ of the cheer, someone repeated ‘Y’ so loud that it drowned the ‘A’ completely.  From then on it was ‘Y-Y-Y’ (or ‘Why, why why???’) as in the retort-jeer if you will often used by some of Royal’s opponents.   

It was just some boys good-humouredly laughing at their team and therefore themselves.  No malice was intended.  In fact some of the very same prefects were among those who vociferously cheered the team even when it was fighting losing causes, through impending defeat and defeat itself.  

A few minutes later, Sarinda, who had left school by that time but was helping the team, turned up at the Prefects’ Room.  

He didn’t rant and rave.  There were no screams.  

‘You know that the team is not doing too well.  You are prefects.  You can do better than this.  They need your support.  You didn’t have to do that.’

The prefects assured that they backed the team and that it was not meant to ridicule or hurt.  

‘That’s good,’ he said and left.  

Loyalty.  That was important to Sarinda.  Years later it was loyalty to a nation, a nation made of all kinds of people whose various identifiers meant little or nothing to him, just the fact that they were citizens of his country, Sri Lanka.  Back then it was his alma mater

Sarinda, like any schoolboy then and now, would count lots of unforgettable moments.  Those close to him would know much.  Others know little or nothing.  Among the ‘little’, here’s something I picked up a short while ago, almost 35 years after it happened.

The 103rd Battle of the Blues.  I am quoting an account written by Sarinda years later. 

“Malik Samarasinghe, the slow left arm spinner got one to pitch on off and drift in to the batsman, who attempted to play a square cut, a tad too close to his body. The result was the faintest, feather of a snick.”

The only person who reacted had been Sarinda, the keeper, who “let out a yelp and leapt in the air.”   None of the teammates around the bat had supported him and neither had the bowler.  

“The umpire decisively shook his head with a disdainful stare down the pitch, clasped his hands behind his back and turned his head away; Sandesh Algama at first slip kept hopping up and down, repeating ‘What? What? What?’”

The batsman, Stefan Anthonisz, had stood firm for a few seconds looking at the ground. Then he had turned, looked Sarind in the eye, “muttered an audible obscenity and to the shock of all, on and off the field, tucked his bat under his arm and trudged off the field”.

“The Royalist players, once they realized what had happened, stood to applaud the batsman all the way to the pavilion.”

The tea break had found Sarinda making a beeline for the Thomian dressing room to shake the hand of the batsman and to confess, “I would never had done that!”

And then, another note, added years later:  “Esto Perpetua Stef. To this day I drink to you.”

Honest.  Honourable.  Learnt of books and learnt of men.  That’s him.  Sarinda.

I like to think that Sarinda of that time did not become Sarinda of ‘The Trail’ (or for that matter Sarinda of ‘Wheels for Wheels’ where he, along with a dozen others cycled ‘around the pearl’ that is the island of Sri Lanka to raise money to buy wheelchairs for children suffering from cerebral palsy).  


I prefer to think that the Sarinda of that time is still the same Sarinda — same values, same  sense of loyalty and purpose.  Serious when there’s a job at hand, but never forgetting to smile or laugh if the moment warranted it.  

I am sure that there are many who will have ‘Sarinda-stories’ to relate from ‘The Trail’ that are similar to the ones recounted above.  Maybe there are other aspect to the man and if so I hope someone will put them all together one day. 

Gehan Rajapakse, Namal Kamalgoda and Palitha Antony, co-authors with Sarinda of ‘Elusive: a journey through the wild’ for example could talk of his love for the wild, for nature, for the earth and perhaps his concerns at the violence done to the same.  



Chulaka Amarasinghe, skipper of that winning Royal team as well as other teammates will talk about his antics in the dressing room.  Sriyan Cooray, Royal’s rugby captain in 1983 when Sarinda played as winger, and other ruggerites of that time probably have anecdotes, as probably do members of the Athletics team of which Sarinda was the hurdler.  His friends from MAS as well as other places of work, classmates at Royal and friends from Ithaca College, NY, could add to all this.  

When I met him a few years ago at a modest ceremony where Dr Dinesh Sivaratnam made the single largest donation towards the completion of the cancer hospital in Tellippalai, Jaffna, enough to build an entire ward of 60 beds and accommodation for medical staff, I asked Sarinda what he does (for a living).  He laughed and said ‘jangi mahanava’ (I stitch panties), referring to his work at MAS Holdings. That’s also Sarinda.  He knows how to laugh, even at himself.  

There are hundreds if not thousands of pictures from ‘The Trail’ where Sarinda is hugging fellow-‘trailers’.  Tons of pictures where he celebrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit.  He smiled for countless selfies even though his body, especially his feet would have hurt terribly.  



Yes, he has smiles for all seasons.  And he puts smiles on a lot of people.  Especially people he has never met.  Just by being himself.  

Sarinda Unamboowe.  A wonderful standard-bearer not just for our generation, but for everything that’s good, decent, civilized and hopeful in all our people; in our nation, in fact.   Along with Nathan, whose story will also get written, I promise. 




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